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Who is Devaroe Lawrence and why is he on the Washington Football Team?

Cleveland Browns v Denver Broncos Photo by Rob Leiter/Getty Images

The player

Devaroe Lawrence is 28 years old and went undrafted in 2017. In the 4 years since, he has been under contract to four NFL teams; he’s been mostly a practice squad player, but in 2019, as a member of the Cleveland Browns, he appeared in 11 consecutive games, getting 222 snaps on defense, and another 19 on special teams.

NFL: OCT 13 Seahawks at Browns Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Devaroe Lawrence is 6’2” and 295 pounds. He has a super bowl ring as a member of the 2019 KC Chiefs roster. In his limited snaps, he has an interception and a fumble recovery.

He is a defensive tackle on one of the most elite DT units in the world alongside Jon Allen, Daron Payne, Matt Ioannidis, and Tim Settle.

His path to the NFL was anything but typical.

Early years

Devaroe Lawrence went two years, from 2010 to 2012 without playing football. Because of bad grades and, apparently, some legal issues, Lawrence wasn’t in a position to play college ball when he finished high school in Greenville, S.C. It was reported that he dealt drugs starting in eighth grade and served a two week jail sentence while in high school, and then had two more stints in jail shortly after his graduation. Back then, he didn’t call himself Devaroe; instead, he went by his middle name, Jamal. Devaroe Jamal Lawrence was out of school and football the next fall (2011), and he allowed his weight to balloon up to nearly 300 pounds as a 19-year-old.

In an effort to get his life back on track, he took some courses at Greenville Tech Community College, then transferred to Georgia Military College in 2012. He went to the football team’s summer combine, where showed the coaches enough to earn a spot on the team as a walk-on, but he still had a long way to go. “He was fat and out of shape,” GMC strength coach Brian Hill said. “He couldn’t get out of period three with me. He’d fall out.”

By 2013, the 6-foot-3 Lawrence was down to 278 pounds. He was benching 385 pounds, squatting 500, and power cleaning 305. And he was dominating his own offensive linemen in practice.

“We haven’t had anyone block him yet,” said coach Hill of the then-20 y.o. defensive lineman. “He’s very explosive. ... He does it effortlessly. He has no turn-off switch; he’s full speed all the time.”

Auburn

His transformation from an overweight and out of shape player to a strong and fit athlete got Devaroe Lawrence a spot on the Auburn Tigers football team. In 2014, he appeared in one game and managed to get on the stat sheet with one tackle for loss.

In 2015, Lawrence played in 11 games for Auburn, and then another 9 games in his senior season (2016). He finished his SEC career with 45 total tackles, 6 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.

Pre-draft

It’s probably no surprise that Lawrence went undrafted in 2017, but he was considered draftable. Here’s an excerpt from a pre-draft article written by Mike Garafolo on the eve of the ‘17 draft:

The way Devaroe Lawrence remembers it, he was alone in his cell, getting ready for bed. It was his third stint in jail, and he knew he’d be getting out soon, so he prayed for a chance to do something that would prevent another trip behind bars. Something he could do well.

Something, rather than his previous plans to do nothing.

“I didn’t say exactly what it was I was talking about, but after I said, ‘In Jesus Christ’s name, we pray,’ my cell door popped [open],” Lawrence recalled recently in a conversation with NFL Media. “One of the guards told me I was getting out that night, and my life forever changed.”

Lives will forever change this week when the 2017 NFL Draft begins in Philadelphia on Thursday and continues through Saturday. It won’t be until the final day when Lawrence, a 6-foot-2, 294-pound defensive tackle from Auburn, learns where his pro career will begin. He’s slated as a possible late-round pick, though he might wind up being an undrafted free agent — which, for many players, can be a blessing in disguise, because it gives them some control over their destination.

By many accounts, Lawrence is as naturally gifted as most of the players who will hear their names called well ahead of his. He believes he is a “first-round talent,” and there’s some evidence to support that claim. According to numbers compiled by Auburn’s strength and conditioning program, Lawrence recorded a 4.60-second 40-yard dash during a workout in April 2016, as well as a 7.49-second three-cone drill and a broad jump of 9 feet, 8.5 inches. Lawrence’s weight that day was 300 pounds.

That 40 time can’t possibly be accurate, and NFL scouts have no recent comparison of their own, because Lawrence is coming off a torn ACL suffered last December. He only did the bench press (piling up an impressive 31 reps) at his pro day last month. But a 40-time that fast would be in the neighborhood of what players who weigh 40-50 pounds less than Lawrence ran at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Rodney Garner, Auburn’s associate head coach and defensive line coach, didn’t witness last year’s workout and declined to vouch for the listed time, but said Lawrence is “explosive, he is powerful and he can flat-out run. He’s the closest thing to Geno that I’ve coached.”

Geno is five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals. He is one of the NFL stars Garner coached during his 15 seasons at Georgia.

“Given the right situation, the right place, he can play at [Atkins’] level. There are no limitations other than what he puts on himself,” Garner said by phone last week. “He was in my office yesterday and I told him I have several teams inquiring about him because he is a very gifted player.”

The question NFL evaluators have, though, is why Lawrence’s production never matched his potential. Why did this supremely talented player have only 44 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 24 games over the past two seasons?

Both Lawrence and his former coach talked then, pre-draft, about some of the physical limitations that Lawrence had faced.

Kelly believes Lawrence’s rough early years led to some malnutrition that has affected his body, though they’ve seen progress, and the hope is NFL strength and conditioning programs will help him improve in those areas.

“It used to be, if I was on the field working as hard as I could, and somebody told me it wasn’t good enough, I’d think, This is my best, but it’s not good enough? Forget this,” Lawrence said. “But this past year or so, I’ve learned to tap into that will power, and I’m tapping into it more now because of the ACL. I don’t think like a human, I don’t think like the average man and I’m not healing like a human.

“No more mental barriers. I want to be extraordinary.”

As an aside, I want to mention that Devaroe Lawrence’s life story is at once dispiriting and uplifting. Despite producing a thousand words already, I’m glossing over the details of his life, which include moving constantly as a youth from family to family and becoming an isolated, lonely teenager. The life that likely would have become just one more tragic “could have been” story was turned around, first, by a high school coach who literally took him in and then less literally took on the role of Devaroe’s father. Football coaches continued to be part of his life reclamation at Auburn; his relationship with the coach quoted in the Mike Garafolo story is unquestionably a close one, based on the comments from the coach about his interactions with Lawrence over the years. I strongly recommend that you read that article in full if you have the time and the interest.

I can easily imagine a situation where today’s 28-year-old Lawrence thrives in the kind of environment that Ron Rivera and Jack Del Rio would create, and I can also imagine that Devaroe Lawrence would respond very well to Rivera’s tough-love, disciplined approach to players.

Of course, I just made a huge leap in the Devaroe Lawrence story from pre-draft 2017 to offseason 2021. In between, Lawrence has made a few stops.

The NFL

Lawrence was recovering from an ACL tear at the time of the draft in 2017. He eventually signed as an undrafted free agent with the Saints, but spent his entire rookie season on the team’s injured reserve list as he recovered from the college injury.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In 2018, the Saints traded him to the Browns for a 7th round pick. The Browns acquired the 3-technique defensive lineman to essentially replace — and you’ll like this — Caleb Brantley, who had been drafted late by the Browns in 2017 but then waived prior to the 2018 season. Brantley was picked up off of waivers at that time by the Washington Redskins.

You may remember that Brantley opted out of the 2020 season with the Washington Football Team due to COVID concerns, and that he was released by the team prior to the draft last month and that he is still a free agent. If Devaroe Lawrence makes the 53-man roster, it will effectively be the second time he has replaced Brantley’s roster spot on an NFL team.

Lawrence only played two snaps in 2018, but in his first on-field stint as Brantley’s replacement with the Browns the following season, Lawrence did okay. He appeared in the first 11 games of the 2019 season with two starts.

Cleveland Browns v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

He recorded eight tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery, but was waived to make room for DT Larry Ogunjobi when he returned from a suspension at the end of November.

Lawrence was scooped up by the Chiefs and signed to their practice squad. Lawrence got a super bowl ring out of his two-month tenure with the 2019 Chiefs.

He returned to Kansas City in 2020 but was released at the end of training camp. Three weeks later, he was signed to the Washington Football Team practice squad. He was active for only a single game a year ago — Week 7 against the Cowboys — but never got in the game. He spent the balance of the 2020 season on the Washington practice squad.

What does 2021 have in store for Devaroe Lawrence?

Mark Tyler, in his recent 53-man roster projection, predicted that Devaroe Lawrence would make the 53-man opening day roster as the 5th DL behind Washington’s four monsters — Allen, Payne, Ioannidis and Settle.

NFL: Preseason-Washington Redskins at Cleveland Browns Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

If you think the team keeps 5 DL on the roster, this isn’t a bad suggestion; his competition for that spot is comprised of just two players: the German International Pathway Player, David Bada, and Daniel Wise, a 2019 UDFA who has been on the practice squads for three NFL teams but who has never been elevated to a regular season roster. Of the three, Devaroe Lawrence is the only one who appears to have a genuine chance of making the roster for opening day against the Chargers.

Personally, I think it’s more likely that the team goes into Week 1 with just the four top defensive linemen on the roster, and that they squeeze out an extra roster spot by releasing Lawrence with the expectation of re-signing him to the practice squad. Following Matt Ioannidis’ injury last year, the team didn’t elevate Lawrence or anyone else; they finished the season with three interior defensive linemen. I think Lawrence goes to the Practice Squad again this year and I don’t think he’s likely to get snatched up by another team.

That extra roster spot could allow the team to carry a third QB, an extra TE, WR, OL or DB, or even a specialist return man like DeAndre Carter. That seems worth the small risk of losing a DT with 12 game appearances in 4 NFL seasons. Meanwhile, Lawrence would almost certainly remain with the team where he could continue to develop and be available for promotion to the regular roster any time he was needed.

Devaroe Lawrence is an NFL quality player with physical skills who has had to learn to believe in himself. He has a compelling story, and I am rooting for him to succeed. Like every one of us and like every NFL player, he is much more than just a few numbers on a stat sheet.